Gabriel Rivera never became the next Joe Greene.
Dan Marino did become a Hall-of-Fame quarterback and one of the best passers of his generation.
What if he had had been drafted by his hometown team?
The Steelers produced many talented teams from 1984-1996, the era when Marino was in his prime. Pittsburgh never had an elite quarterback during that time, which led to many disappointing season-ending losses that included playoff defeats at the hands of both Marino and fellow Pittsburgh native, Jim Kelly.
Coach Chuck Noll drafted Rivera as the No.21 pick in the 1983 Draft because he wanted to start the rebuilding defense by constructing a strong defense, just as he had 14 years earlier.
Marino is the draft miss that really stings. The University of Pittsburgh star that led Pitt to a Sugar Bowl title just months earlier was still available when the Steelers were on the board. He was finally selected six spots later by the Miami Dolphins.
It didn't take long for Marino to wreak havoc on the league. He threw for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns in 1984 and led the Dolphins to a 45-28 win over the Steelers in the AFC Championship. Marino's out-manned Dolphins were then defeated by the 49ers 38-16 in Super Bowl XIX, his only appearance in the big game.
So what would have happened if the Steelers had drafted Marino during that time?
Marino is still regarded today as arguably the best pure pocket passer in NFL history. He wasn't the gun slinger Terry Bradshaw was, who wasn't afraid to go deep and put the ball in tight spots. Marino was more of a Chuck Noll type of quarterback: A stationary passer that liked to systematically dissect a defense. He was also a born leader and perfectionist that often led to him lecturing and berating teammates in between plays.
Marino's intensity on the offensive end would have mirrored the leadership the team had on defense with Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene. He would have raised the expectations of an offense that-although very good at times- was seldom on the level of Pittsburgh's offense.
Swap Pittsburgh's quarterbacks for Marino, and I see the Steelers winning two Super Bowls in the 90s. While I do believe they would have broken up one of the Bills Super Bowl runs (as well as taking away Denver's Super Bowl apperance in Super Bowl XXIV), I'm not sure-even with Marino-that the Steelers could have overcome those dominant NFC teams in the late '80s/early '90s. I do see them beating the Chargers in the 1994 AFC Championship, and I see them winning either Super Bowl XXX or XXXII.
Marino would have picked defenses apart with Ron Earhart's five wide receiver set. And he would have known when to pound the rock witih Bam Morris with the lead late in the game. I think Marino would have made the difference in Super Bowl XXX against the Cowboys, even though I wonder if Dallas would have blitzed Marino to exploit his immobility the same way they did to O'Donnell. While I think Dallas would have gotten to him a few times, I don't think Marino would have forced a game-clinching interception for Dallas. I see Pittsburgh defeating the Cowboys 27-17 with Dan the Man at the helm.
While the 1996 Patriots were tough, I don't see them defeating Pittsburgh 28-3 in the second round of the playoffs with Marino, as they did against the Mike Tomczak-led Steelers that season. Pittsburgh's defense was dominant that year, and Marino would have been complimented with running back Jerome Bettis at the height of his powers. They surely would have defeated Jacksonville (as New England did) in the AFC Championship to face Green Bay in the Super Bowl. Even with Marino, I'm not sure if the Steelers would have defeated the Pack that year. Losing Yancy Thigpen with an injury hurt Pittsburgh that season, and the Packers with Brett Favre was one of the more dominant teams in NFL history.
With Marino at the helm in 1997, that year's AFC Championship game would have pitted Marino vs. fellow Class of '83 quarterback John Elway. With Denver's defense giving up an horrendous 4.7 yards per carry that season, I think Marino would have perfectly mixed timely passing with punishing runs by Bettis. The Steelers win that game and defeat Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII. While still tough, the Pack didn't have the same invincibility that they had in '96. They lost Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard, and their rush defense was not nearly as strong.
Facing Green Bay in San Diego, the Steelers would have tried to execute the same game plan the Broncos did en route to their 31-24 win: Wear Green Bay's defense out with the run, pick up some first downs through the air, and blitz Favre using corner backs and other outside rushers (you can almost see Carnell Lake stripping Favre away on a blind side blitz like Denver's Steve Atwater did in the second quarter of that game). Pittsburgh wins that game, and it's Marino, not Elway, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
Of course, we'll never know what would have happened if Noll had drafted Marino over 30 years ago. But it's fun to think about, and it's a lesson about how important the NFL Draft really is.